While the European Union was struggling to find a consensus for a trade agreement with Canada, one of its smaller member states, the Czech Republic, is tightening its relations with China. This has created a befuddling situation in which a Central European state known for beer and beautiful women experiences an internal political fight over Tibetan flags and the Dalai Lama.
A Recent Development
It all started in 2009, when the Czech Republic and China celebrated sixty years of diplomatic relations. The history of this relationship dates back to 1949, when the former Czechoslovak Republic recognised the People's Republic of China. China even continued to be an ally of the Czechs of some sort, notably when Beijing condemned the repression of the Czechoslovak revolution against the Warsaw pact in 1968. During this 2009 meeting, Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao called for stronger bilateral trade cooperation. At the beginning of the 2008 economic crisis, this tightening of relations, expected to improve cultural investments and investments in tourism, were deemed a necessary plan B by then Czech president Václav Klaus. He expressed his hopes that Chinese investments would steadily increase.
The right-wing opposition criticised the ruling party and hoisted not only a Tibetan flag, but also the flag of Taiwan.
From 2013 on, the shift from a right-wing to a left-wing government in the Czech Republic also meant a foreign policy change. Czech social democrat parties are known to support close relations to China. Both the last prime minister Jiří Rusnok and the current head of government Bohuslav Sobotka have been following through with this policy.
In 2014, current Czech president Miloš Zeman traveled to Beijing to vouch for improved business and tourism relations, and proposed a direct flight connection between Prague and China's capital. Nothing could be more suited for the persona of Zeman than getting aligned with the Chinese: an anti-immigrant authoritarian with no distinct appreciation for his European counterparts and with dubious corporate friends and sponsors. A man who once called himself a European federalist, found his soulmates in Russian autocrats with whom he meets and fluently speaks Russian. He is tired of the EU, which is unwilling to deepen trade relations with the People's Republic due to concerns about human rights. When asked by Chinese television about this strengthening of trade relations with China, Zeman responded:
"Now we are again an independent country and we formulate our foreign policy which is based on our own interests."
However, how divided over the China-question the country's political sphere really is, only showed itself this year.
The Tibet Flag Controversy
In March of this year, Chinese president Xi Jinping came on an official state visit to the Czech Republic. In many ways this was a big deal for the Czechs: they were not only hosting the head of state of one of the largest economies in the world, who seldomly travels to such small countries, but also their second biggest trading partner (at least when it comes to imports). The Czech Republic turned out to be the only EU country to get a visit before the Chinese delegation continued its travel to the United States. So indeed: big deal, big day.
Prior to the meeting the municipality of Prague had refused to hoist the Tibetan flag in commemoration of the anti-Chinese uprising in Tibet in 1959 that claimed the lives of 80,000 inhabitants, in order not to deteriorate the relations with the later visitors. The right-wing opposition TOP09 criticised the ruling party and not only hoisted a Tibetan flag, but also the flag of the Republic of China (Taiwan), even though neither of them is recognised as an independent country by the Czech Republic.
The Dalai Lama Controversy
Last month the Dalai Lama visited the Czech Republic for the Conference 2000. Several Czech ministers and parliamentarians (from the Christian-Democrat Party) met with the spiritual leader, an upsetting move for the supporters of the enhanced trade relations with China. President Zeman expressed his disdain by stating:
Personal activities of some Czech politicians do not express a change of the official policy of the Czech Republic and we would regard as unfortunate if anybody saw it as such.
The controversy really sparked public debate, when the Czech presidency refused to award a state medal to 88-year old Holocaust survivor George Brady. This was allegedly because his nephew, Czech minister of culture Daniel Herman, had met with the Dalai Lama. A press release from president Zeman has since denied the accusation, yet failed to give a reason why Brady was taken off the list of candidates for the medal.
The Czech hate the morally patronising tone of the elite. Strong relations with China is a way to show greatness in front of the arrogant eurocrats.
The really bizarre factor in all this is that the confrontation is not really about China or Tibet: it's about the president Zeman and his leadership philosophy, which is more and more turning its back on the rest of Europe. Influential figures, such as Mikuláš Bek, vice-chairman for the rector's conference on education in the Czech Republic, use the Tibet question to show their despise for Zeman's politics and questionable rhetoric.
However, Zeman also represents a general trend in the Czech population. A trend in which people hate the morally patronising tone of the elite, and in which the relations with China is a way to show greatness in front of the arrogant eurocrats in Brussels. This Trumpian dystopia seems very real, and Zeman earns this exact position. Probably the reason why he was quoted after the US election to be "very happy" about Trump's electoral win in the US.
After all, the China-question will continue to divide the country, once again placing the Czechs in an ideological fight between the West and the East.